Trauma & Transformation

August 16, 2020
Genesis 45:1-15

Many of you know that I am really into board games. As part of my interest in board games I sometimes listen to podcasts about games and gaming. On one of the podcasts I listen to there is a segment called Gametek – it is an exploration of the underlying principles of game design – the math and science and other overly complex and detailed information about game theories. Recently the host of that segment – game designer and engineer Geoff Engelstein, talked about the impact of coronavirus on sporting events which are now being played mostly in bubbles without in-person audiences. He was particularly focusing on the idea of home field advantage without fans present.

Early data had been collected from Germany’s football (soccer) league which resumed play in May that showed some interesting trends about home field advantage without an actual audience at home. It turns out that without fans in the stands there was no longer much of a home field advantage – in fact, teams actually lost a bit more frequently at home. The total number of goals scored dropped, and the play itself was less risky and flashy with players taking fewer and worse shots than they would have with fans in the stands. Initially the suggested implication was that players were not putting forth as much effort since there wasn’t a crowd to perform for, but it turns out that there was just as much sprinting, and sometimes even more than would have been exerted with a full stadium. So it wasn’t that there was less talent being displayed, it was being put to use in less flashy and more methodical ways.

Of course, the full impact of this moment in sporting has not been experienced yet, however, another implication that came to light in this data was the impact of no fans on the referees. It turns out that it was the referees who behaved the most differently without the crowd. Referees who may have been hesitant to call penalties or may have called them with less severity in front of the fans actually called more – especially on the home teams. While the referees may not have been intentionally holding bias, the research shows that referees do have demonstrable bias that can be impacted by the crowd gathered around them. This is important for us to consider and pay attention to as we interact with and observe the actions of people in positions of presumed authority and power – they can be influenced by the presence of people observing them.

And that is right where we step into the story of today’s scripture passage where Joseph, one of the highest officials in all of Egypt, second in command only to Pharaoh himself, is caught up in a very emotional moment. He is unable to control himself and he clears the room of any extraneous audience:

Then Joseph was no longer able to hold back his feelings in front of his attendants, and he cried out to them, “Leave me!” So no one was present when Joseph made himself known to his brothers…Joseph said to his brothers, “It is I – Joseph! Is my father really still alive?” The brothers could not answer, so dumbfounded where they.

Now, for some of you Joseph’s story might be super familiar and for some of you, it may have been a long time since you have thought of this character and his role in the Older Testament. So, in order for us to grasp the full impact of what is happening in this moment let’s do a quick recap of the story leading up to this moment.

Joseph is the son of Rachel & Jacob [Jacob being the son of Rebecca & Isaac, Isaac being the son of Sarah & Abraham]. Joseph was one of 12 sons of Jacob – however, he had the distinction of being the first born son of Jacob’s most beloved wife Rachel. Leah, Jacob’s first wife birthed 10 of his sons and Rachel bore Jacob two: Joseph and Benjamin. Because of his special love for his wife Rachel, Jacob also held a special affinity for Joseph.

He was the favorite son. And therefore he was also the most begrudged son of the 12 brothers. Joseph is the child who received special treatment from Jacob – including a gift of fancy garb – often called a coat of many colors – this special treatment incited so much jealousy in Joseph’s brothers that they end up stealing the garment from him, putting him in the pit of a dry well to die, only to think through their actions a bit and instead chose to sell him into slavery to some traveling Midianites so that his death wouldn’t actually be on their hands. Of course they couldn’t own up to their father that they had sold his beloved Joseph into slavery, so the brothers ripped his cloak, put goat blood on it and took it to their father to explain that Joseph had been attacked and killed by wild animals.

Jacob is inconsolable in his grief at the news of the death of Joseph.

Meanwhile, Joseph, now a slave, is taken to Egypt and sold to Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh. And he excels in his work and is placed in a position of leadership over the house of Potiphar until Potiphar’s wife decides she would like Joseph to like her and when he doesn’t she cries foul and he is placed in prison. He excels as a prisoner and is put to service by the keeper of the prison. In that work he has the opportunity to interpret dreams for Pharaoh’s cupbearer and official baker – which later leads to the cupbearer calling upon Joseph to interpret a dream for Pharaoh himself.

It is a dream that foreshadows 7 years of surplus in the land followed by 7 years of dire famine. Joseph’s ability to interpret the dream for Pharaoh (which he attributes entirely to God) propels him into a position of power in Egypt – the overseer of the land, harvests and reserves in preparation for the forthcoming years of famine. As I mentioned earlier, in power and authority, Joseph is second only to Pharoah. And he again, excels at his job so that when the famine does strike the land, Egypt is prepared and has surplus grain which it uses to sustain its own population and also sells to neighboring peoples.

Jacob and his remaining 11 sons and their families are suffering in the years of famine and hear about the surplus in Egypt, so Jacob sends his sons to buy grain from them. Jacob keeps Benjamin at home with him as he cannot stand the thought of losing his only remaining son born to Rachel. The other 10 brothers go to buy grain and in the process, are recognized by Joseph who does not reveal himself to them but instead inquires into the health of their father and then manipulates them to bring their brother Benjamin to him as well.

The brothers go home and return with Benjamin – who is treated with excessive generosity by this leader of Egypt. The brothers still do not realize that it is Joseph (Benjamin’s full brother) they are dealing with. After Joseph further tricks them by placing his own silver cup into Benjamin’s travel pack he brings them once more to the palace and threatens to keep Benjamin a prisoner for stealing his cup. At which point Judah, the brother who had originally come up with the plan to sell Joseph into slavery, intercedes and offers his himself as a prisoner in lieu of Benjamin, knowing that it would be the death of their father if Benjamin did not return.

And all of that brings us back to the moment at hand – the moment where Joseph reveals his identity to his brothers, to the brothers who once envied and hated him enough to throw him in a pit and then sell him, Joseph now stands before them very much alive and in a position to offer or withhold life-sustaining supplies. It is surely a trauma filled moment for all of them – for the journey that has brought them each to this moment has been complex and convoluted. It is no wonder then that Joseph is unable to control his emotions – weeping so loudly that, even though he cleared the room of his attendants his cries could be heard throughout the palace. And it is also not surprising that his brothers, upon hearing his revelation are dumbfounded – unable to react at all. Both of these reactions are physiological responses to trauma – you are likely familiar with fight or flight responses – and yet sometimes our brains perceive a threat that moves us beyond the capacity to enter into a state of fight or flight, in these moments we move into a space of freezing – which can express itself as an outburst of tears or becoming dumbfounded and speechless.

Joseph is the first to respond to this moment of triggered trauma and he invites his brothers into response as well he says: “Come closer to me.” Physical movement is one tool for beginning to release trauma from our bodies. Come closer to me, he says – and the brothers move closer. They move closer to this brother-ruler – this referee without an audience to sway his decisions towards restraint or revenge. And there, gathered together, Joseph chooses to extend a hand of grace and generosity to his brothers.

“I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt! Please don’t rebuke yourselves for having sold me here. God sent me here ahead of you so that I could save your lives…God sent me ahead of you to guarantee that you will have descendants on earth and to keep you alive as a great body of survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God!”

And this is where some preachers would glorify that sometimes bad things happen to people for God’s purposes. My dear spouse and I were talking about this concept this week as I was mulling over this scripture. After I sent out the email to the community on Thursday encouraging us all to take a moment to connect with each other in intentional ways, Becky came downstairs later that evening and handed me a lovely note of encouragement written on the back of this postcard – the front of which says: “If this is God’s plan, God is a terrible planner. (No offense if you’re reading this, God. You did a really good job with other stuff, like waterfalls and pandas.)” I jest here a bit, and yet in all seriousness, I do not believe that God plans or makes bad stuff happen to people to serve a purpose. I do not believe life is a linear path of duality between good and bad experiences – I believe we live in complexity, chaos, grace, abundance, and more simultaneously.

I believe God is in relationship with us in all moments of our lives. And in that reality, God accompanies us through terrible and challenging times and journeys with us into spaces of transformation, healing, and even moments of redemption. I have also seen that we can sometimes draw a line that connects certain dots between events and experiences, showing them to be in relationship with each other in mysterious ways.

I am not one to fully fathom the ways in which God moves in and through our lives. One commentary I read said it was only the brave preacher who would admit not to have the answers about all of God’s ways. I don’t claim to be brave – I am instead grateful to be a pastor in a congregation where we celebrate that we do not hold all of the answers to the mysteries of God – where we value questions as much, if not more so, than answers. A congregation that intentionally grapples with what it means to be people of faith with questions encountering God in the very mundane world as we most often experience it.

This is one of the things I most appreciate about the story of Joseph in scripture. He is the first in his familial line to not have a direct interaction/encounter with God. Joseph, like most of us, doesn’t experience an explicit theophany. Joseph experiences life in all of it’s layers: love, pain, hardship, and trauma, and he chooses to claim and name the presence of God in all of those experiences.

Joseph crafts his narrative in a way that helps frame his experiences of hardship in relationship with the abundance he is experiencing in the present moment. It is a tool that allows him to embrace the experiences of trauma from his life, of which there were many, while also offering a space for transformation. The research of Bruce Feiler, author of “Life Is in the Transitions” shows that “most people experience three to five “life quakes” or massive life changes that can have aftershocks for years.” In a Washington Post article[1] this week about helping kids cope with the uncertainty of a new school year he says this:

“Parents instinctively shield their children from pain…Instead of over-protecting, we want to be saying that sometimes bad things happen, and we’re going to stick together and get through it as a family…many kids get comfort from hearing family stories. “Tell them stories of people they know who overcame hardships,” Feiler says, to help them understand how those life quakes have affected others. Encourage them to think about their own narrative, too. “They can tell themselves, ‘I’m learning about the world — there are wars, there are recessions, life isn’t linear — so I’m going to work on building the skills of managing a life quake,’

We are all, at every age, experiencing life in all of its complexities and layers. We are all still learning about the world, experiencing firsthand that life is most definitely not linear, it is mysterious and chaotic in moments. May we each find ways to craft the narrative of our experiences in ways that honor the challenges, the pain, and the trauma while also embracing the possibility of transformation, healing, and abundance. And may we too experience and name the presence of the Holy in it all.